Newton, Panthers look to beat Falcons, clinch 1st-round bye


NEW YORK (AP) — Cam Newton is building a strong case to be the NFL Most Valuable Player this season.

Behind the play of the multi-dimensional fifth-year quarterback, the unbeaten Carolina Panthers have already wrapped up the NFC South division for a third straight season. They can secure a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs with a win on Sunday at home against the Atlanta Falcons.

Newton has thrown five touchdown passes in two of his last three games, and has earned NFC offensive player of the week three times this season.

Despite lacking a true No. 1 wide receiver — Kelvin Benjamin was lost in training camp to a season-ending knee injury — Newton has thrown a career-high 25 touchdown passes. He’s also a major factor in Carolina’s third-ranked ground attack with 478 yards rushing and seven touchdowns.

Some of Newton’s passing numbers — he’s 15th in the NFL in passer rating (93.2), 18th in passing yards (2,797) and 29th in completion percentage (58.4) — may cost him an opportunity to beat out New England’s Tom Brady or Arizona’s Carson Palmer or any other candidates.

Regardless, Newton has found a way to win, undefeated in his last 15 starts and 12 this season.

“It feels like he went through another ceiling, and that’s what I see so far in the film this year,” Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.

Newton admitted this week he always gets a little more hyped against his hometown Falcons. But he’ll face an old nemesis in Quinn, a former defensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks. Quinn has found ways to slow down Newton in the past and limit his effectiveness with the read option, often frustrating the quarterback.

Also this weekend, the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, and Arizona Cardinals are on the verge of grabbing division crowns.

The Cardinals defeated the Minnesota Vikings 23-20 on Thursday for their seventh straight victory, and secured a playoff spot. Should Seattle lose at Baltimore on Sunday, the NFC West would belong to the Cardinals.

New England go to the Houston Texans, and both sides need to make statements.

For the Patriots, it’s a chance to show they won’t keep sliding with a myriad of injuries and a dangerous penchant for allowing big plays. Their second straight defeat last week, against Philadelphia, featured three returns for touchdowns by the Eagles.

Houston is tied with Indianapolis for the AFC South lead and visits the Colts next week. The Texans’ staunch defense was blistered in Buffalo, and needs a quick turnaround against Tom Brady. Of course, with JJ Watt on their side, that could happen for the Texans, though Watt is playing with a broken left hand.

If Denver wins the rest of its games, it stays at home for the AFC playoffs. That won’t be easy with matchups against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals coming up.

But with a defense that ranks first overall and against the pass, has 41 sacks, and has yielded fewer points (210) than anyone but Cincinnati, the Broncos will be in every game. On Sunday, they welcome the Oakland Raiders, against whom they have won eight straight.

Oakland’s inexperience has hurt it in the last month, with the Raiders dropping four of five games.

Nothing would suit the Bengals more than walking off with the AFC North by sweeping the season series with the Steelers. Indeed, even if Pittsburgh wins this one, its chances of surpassing Cincinnati are not strong.

The Steelers have won their last eight games in December and their offense is on fire: 30 points in four straight games for the first time in club history. They could meet their match, though, because the Bengals have allowed the fewest points in the league with 196.

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